Wednesday, February 18, 2009

This Month on TCM: 1949s Best Picture— All the King's Men

On Friday, February 27, TCM is showing Oscar-winner All the King's Men. One of the more obscure winners for Best Picture, the film won the top honors from the Academy but only three Oscars total (the other two, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress).

All the King's Men is based on the Pultizer Prize-winning book by Robert Penn Warren. Make no mistake, the story of Willie Stark is lifted from the life of Louisiana Governor Huey Long— there is one parallel after the next in the Long-to-Stark comparison, with only Long's Senate tenure left out.

All the King's Men, produced and directed by Robert Rossen, runs a dense 109 minutes. Packed into the story is the complete rise of a small town yokel from nobody to Governor and how his political ambitions affect his family and colleagues. Broderick Crawford's Willie Stark is a complete characterization-- he's a lowbrow, crass and impulsive mover-and-shaker, who's very methods transform him from a man of the people to an island unto himself. Crawford and the scripting smartly show Stark in his early scenes already possessing the traits of a hardheaded loudmouth-- when his son appears to have been beaten up for handing out leaflets in his father's behalf, Willie practically beats him again to get the story out of him--setting him up perfectly for his later transformation. The power of Crawford's take on Stark is not in how he changes over time, but rather the ambiguity of his character: his methods are clearly misguided, but his motives are not always selfish.

The film is peopled with compeling minor characters as well. Jack Burden (played by John Ireland) is the newspaper columnist that quits his paper for idealistic reasons and has rejected his stepfather's wealth to join up with Stark; Anne Stanton (Joanne Dru) is the rich girl who sees a possible Governor's wife opportunity as Stark's girlfriend; Adam Stanton (Sheppard Strudwick) is the doctor who makes a deal with the devil for the important construction of a new hospital; Tom Stark (John Derek) is Willie's son, who won't allow his father to run his life; and Sadie Burke (Mercedes McCambridge) is the mercenary political manager who goes where the action is. McCambridge's Sadie is even allowed a purely character scene, when she looks at a photo of beauty Anne and then at herself in the mirror and remarks on the difference between the two in the looks department. Mercedes McCambride was making her screen debut in All the King's Men, but she had a background in Broadway and on radio; Broderick Crawford, too, had a background in Broadway, and although this was far from his screen debut, it was certainly his first "important" film. McCambridge and Crawford excell, the other cast members, although serviceable, hardly seem to be in the same movie.

Although the film sends the message that the ends don't justify the means, it doesn't delve deeply enough into the rich gray area that Stark supplies. Despite the way Crawford plays the role, Willie is so outrightly condemned that the gray turns to black-and-white by film's end. It might have been better to show some of the possible positive results that would have inevitably come from Willie's doubledealings, rather than such a complete demonization of him, barely pausing during his early "honest man" idealogical opening. Additionally, we're not really quite sure what drives him, outside of the accumulation of power.

All the King's Men is never necessarily dull, but it's main detraction is that it does seem to lack spark: scenes with staying power, for example. Perhaps this is why the movie remains so obscure. Generally speaking there are moments in classic films, particularly Best Pictures, that everyone has seen before they actually see the movie-- those endlessly clipped movie highlights. They don't exist for All the King's Men, because the movie offers no real electrifying moments.

On the plus side, the film doesn't date, due, unfortunately, to the recycling of the ills of politics in real life. And, although there doesn't seem to be many actual Willie Starks around per se, such aspects of political life as campaign financing remain just as corrupting to today's politicians as to Stark-- the film even goes so far as to suggest that maybe he could have remained the honest man were it not for this one critical component of all campaigns.

One other criticism of the film-- it's techniques are terribly dated: the frequent low angle shots of Willie, the endless montages and string of newspaper headlines, and the use of a "reporter" as a storyteller. Although all of these characterisitics can be found in Citizen Kane, they are used as familiar devices to allow for the films more revolutionary touches. In All the King's Men these techniques are the key elements to the structure.

All the King's Men (1949): Superior work by lead Broderick Crawford in always timely tale of political corruption, nonetheless lacks memorable dramatic moments and offers a weak supporting cast, save Mercedes McCambridge in a solid screen debut.

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